Saturday, September 13, 2008

La Liga 2008-9....Who Will Provide The Competition?

With the Spanish Liga about to see its second round of games this afternoon, I'm a bit overdue with my pre-season post and wildly inaccurate predictions. The truth is I'm not very optimistic about this season, I have the feeling that it could turn out to be one of the most boring for several years. The reason behind that feeling is that La Liga seems to be heading towards an English style league where the title is disputed by a small elite group of teams, and the rest are simply dedicated to ensuring their survival in the top flight. Obviously football in Spain has long been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the last few years have at least seen other clubs that have been able to challenge the supremacy of the big two. There's the problem, the number of candidates likely to do that this season is smaller, and the best chance for a bit of tension lies in Madrid and Barça failing to live up to expectations. This is always possible and the first day of the season was encouraging in this respect as the big two both lost.

So who else could be a contender come the end of the season? I would argue that there are only three other teams capable of mounting a serious challenge; Villareal, Sevilla and Atlético Madrid. Villareal continue to demonstrate what can be achieved with limited resources but good management. Having survived the departure of players like Riquelme and Forlan they managed to make it all the way to Champions league qualification last season. Fortunately, they have held on to key players like Senna and Cazorla although their problem could always be that they lack the squad strength to maintain form throughout the season. I would still make them the best outside bet. Sevilla are another team that have a system for discovering inexpensive talent and which allows the club to survive the departure of key players. Last season they were rocked by the death of one of their players at the very beginning, and then the departure of Juande Ramos to manage Tottenham. They are still there as contenders but don't seem to be the team they were two or three seasons ago.

Atlético Madrid have had the most dramatic start to the season, they got a tough preliminary round draw in the Champions League but produced a thrilling second leg performance to make it through to the main part of that competition. The word was that any chance of strengthening their squad this season depended on that qualification, said to be worth €20 million. The big question is still whether they can reproduce that kind of form week after week, and they seem to be very dependent on the mood of the Argentinian “Kun” Agüero. An almost traditional lack of consistency, coupled with the distraction of being back in the Champions League, rules them out for me as potential title winners. Who else is there? I don't include Valencia amongst the top group at the moment. Despite the appointment of a promising coach the club is so badly run that they ended up flirting with relegation last season. Most of the summer was taken up with a farcical battle for control of the club, and it just doesn't seem to be a stable outfit at the moment; anything could happen.

Madrid and Barcelona have also provided plenty of entertainment during the summer. The Guardiola era has begun at Barcelona and the future of club president Laporta is still under threat as he only narrowly survived attempts to unseat him. It's a curious demonstration of how quickly people go from being heroes to villains. Talking of which, we saw the expected departure of Ronaldinho and Deco, although Samuel Eto'o was reprieved as the club failed in their attempts to attract a big name striker to replace him. Guardiola is a sterner figure than Frank Rijkaard and is already attempting to impose a bit more discipline than the laid back Dutchman was able to do. Given his legendary status as a player he should be given time to prove whether he can deliver as manager of the team. Unless things go very badly, he will probably outlast Laporta.

The spectacle at Real Madrid has ended up being about much more than their fruitless attempt to attract Cristian Ronaldo. In the end they were turned down by Villareal's Cazorla and Valencia's David Villa, and were said to have launched all sorts of desperate last minute bids for players. Their only significant signing was Van der Vaart, and Bernd Schuster is reported to be extremely fed up with the way he has been ignored when it comes to decisions about which players to buy. He should have known this might happen, it's the Real Madrid way and the man who selects the team usually has to accept that he will have little choice on the players who make up his squad. Finally, there came the ultimate humiliation for Madrid with the sale of Robinho, once touted as the “new Pele”. Although I don't really like the trend towards clubs being owned by mega millionaires, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing Madrid on the receiving end of tactics which they have used themselves to get players from other clubs. Their traditional method has been to unsettle players without openly bidding for them so that the player then declares his desire to go to Madrid. This is more or less what Chelsea did with Robinho, even if things didn't turn out quite the way they planned. It was a humiliating experience for Madrid, they are not used to players declaring that they don't want to stay at the club.

The failure of Real Madrid and Barcelona to attract big name players, together with the Robinho saga, is revealing about the shifts in economic power inside European football. The English league is far outspending Spain at the moment, not that this necessarily means we will see better football. Clubs that are not owned by the super rich have to generate income, Madrid and Barcelona have been good at this but are now finding it may be enough when there are people around who can always outbid them for a player. As for the rest, you won't find a Spanish club that has spent truly significant sums on new players. Which is why, in the end, the best hope for a bit of excitement in what I am very reluctant to call La Liga BBVA lies in the big two performing less well than expected. On the topic of sponsorship, I wonder whether Spain will end up with an equivalent to England's Coca Cola Cup. How long before we get the Copa Chupa Chups?

P.S. One very encouraging sign from the first day of the new season. Newly promoted Sporting Gijon were reported by the referee because of racist chanting from some of their fans. They were fined, the club accepted the fine without complaint and quickly published on their web page a condemnation of what had happened without making any excuses. A model for other clubs to follow, and a small lesson to those who would have us believe that such things are just an anti Spanish Anglo-saxon plot.

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